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Getting the Story Right

The presentation of the flag of the Mohican Nation to Historic Huguenot Street on September 20, 2019. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman

 

 

 

Listen to us and the great good spirit will reward your goodness. If you should finally shut your ears may that great spirit forgive you.

 

Hendrik Aupaumut in a letter to the New York State Legislature, 1790

 

 

We were sitting under a big white tent on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY on land that many still believe belongs to the descendants of the indigenous people who settled here more than 7,000 years before the Europeans arrived. It was an historic occasion, and an emotional one. Henrick Aupaumut's letter had been presented to the historic site as a gift, and it tells a complicated story within and between it's formal, diplomatic words. Written after the American Revolution, it argues for the restoration of land stolen by the Dutch, British, and French Huguenot colonists from the indigenous inhabitants of upstate New York and beyond. Hendrik Aupaumut  had fought on the American side during the war; he expected to be heard.
 
So vast and diverse was the land on which the indigenous population once roamed, that historians can define swaths of settlements, but no clear borders. Nomadic, intermarried, culturally and linguistically connected, the suvivors of war, disease and even enslavement, migrations and diplomatic councils were constant, more so after the Europeans arrived. Once eracinated and dispossesed, there was little hope of return to sacred land, a concept the tribes still hold dear. Their rich history is still not properly taught in our schools. 
 
Mary Etta Schneider, President and Board Chair of Historic Huguenot Street, and a French Huguenot descendant herself, got up to speak. I have heard her speak before, but never with so much feeling. "We are on a journey," she said. "We are learning. And we want to get the story right."  The audience went silent. Perhaps they were expecting a sterile academic lecture and nothing more. Indeed, there was a lecture, eventually—and a fascinating one—by  scholar Lisa Brooks, but first there was a ceremony. Two councilmen from the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation were in attendance—they had traveled from Wisconsin—as well as the tribe's Preservation Officer, Bonney Hartley, who sits on the HHS Board.
 
As in times of old, Algonquin was spoken and translated by the speakers themselves, which in itself was startling, that this language is still extant and used.

 

Mary Etta Schneider's hand went over her heart as she returned to her seat after the gifts were exchanged. This is a continuing and permanent partnership, she had promised. The flag of the Munsee-Stockbridge Band will now fly on a pole on Huguenot Street.
 
It was an important gathering—truth and reconciliation—and one I will remember for a long time. I congratulate Historic Huguenot Street for their continuing efforts at re-interpretation of the fault lines in our history that haunt our historic sites, and this particular site in the town I now call home.

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Flashing Lights

I was driving down  Plattekill Avenue on the north side of the university where cars are parked at an odd angle and the speed limit is 30 mph because students and faculty are always crossing at crosswalks, or in between crosswalks, often on their phones, or chatting to friends. Last summer, two pedestrians were hit and badly injured. New, brighter crosswalks with flashing lights and neon signs have been installed, but not everywhere, and the SUNY New Paltz Campus Police and the New Paltz Police are vigilant.

 

This is my new neighborhood. I'm learning what it means to drive everywhere, to be attentive at all times, to keep to the speed limit, to watch the signs change from 30 to 45 to 55 mph. The periphery of the campus is a speed trap, too, and I warn visitors that the cops hang out, they wait, they give tickets. I did not want this ever to happen to me. It's my neighborhood, I obey the law, I'm learning the rules and culture, I want the students and faculty to feel safe and be safe, I want to feel safe and be safe. I know that, hypothetically, a police force protects as well as enforces. But is this true all of the time? Regardless, I did not want to be stopped by the police in my new neighborhood, ever.

 

I wasn't late, I wasn't in a hurry to my teaching gig at another SUNY campus, about thirty minutes away, but Plattekill Avenue is a shortcut to Route 32 North. I stopped at a crossing for a couple of students, but then inadvertently rolled through the STOP sign a few feet further on.  The sun was out, I was daydreaming, thinking about a book I'm getting back to, about a weekend hike on the River to Ridge Trail now that the weather is warming and all the snow and ice have melted. I was  listening to music, I was in the right side of my brain. The campus police car pulled up behind me, lights flashing.

 

I had just been on the campus a few nights before at a meeting sponsored by the Black Student Union about a police brutality allegation and an upcoming trial—the town in an uproar—and the ACLU lawyer's advice to the students and all present— black and white alike: never resist, do what you are asked.

 

There had been a white supremacist march down Main Street last summer—acrimonious , dangerous—and  then, a few weeks later, a black student had been smashed in the face by a cop and lost all his teeth. A committee had formed of concerned parents, concerned citizens. The police are aware, as the line goes in "Homeland." They are aware, on alert, on tenterhooks. They do not want to be accused, they want to do their jobs. But smashing a black student in the mouth is not doing their jobs. 

 

White haired and olive-white-skinned, I had nothing to worry about, not really, but the fear of those young, earnest, students at the meeting had stayed with me. The African American men are especially vulnerable, the lawyer had said, which is nothing new in our divided, beleaguered nation.  But why should I feel so vulnerable? Because that boy who had been smashed in the face could have been my son, or anyone's son.

 

The cop had been hanging out; it felt like an entrapment, but I had to stay quiet. This wasn't a moment to resist or to complain. Even though I had only gently rolled, and there was nothing around, no other cars in sight, I had broken the law.

 

The young, handsome cop got out of his car and  stood just behind my shoulder and to the left, his hand on his holster. This is what he has been trained to do, I thought. It's not a time for questions. I am not here to interview him about the use of force or gun control, we are not friends.

 

I rolled down my window. I knew better than to reach for the glove compartment without instructions to do so, and I said, "Hello, Officer, did I do something wrong?" Where had I learned to be so obsequious, so respectful? I was thinking of my daughter's African American college boyfriend when I said this and what his father, a court officer, had taught him. He carried a badge in his wallet his father had gotten for him, but even that was not protective and I was scared when my daughter was in the car with him.

 

"You rolled through the stop sign,"  the officer said and smiled.

"Oh dear, that's not good," I said.

 

Then he asked for my papers and I gave him all my papers. He told me to sit tight and he went back to the car and took a few moments to run my license, insurance and registration through the computer. I also heard him recite my license plate into a two-way radio. I was now in the system.

 

I thought about my African American friends, I thought about my daughter's college boyfriend, how these moments of waiting must be the most tense, the most scary. This cop was alone, he was young, he was friendly, but I am white-haired and olive-white-skinned. Neither of us felt threatened so we smiled and spoke quietly and respectfully to one another. He warned me to be careful but didn't give me a ticket. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am." And I thanked him. He turned off his flashing lights and went on his way. And I went on mine, braking fully at every stop sign on the way.

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